Guest post

Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

Bruno Lemaitre is professor at the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where he works on insect immunity. He is also a personal friend of mine, this is one of the reasons I wish to introduce here his new book on narcissism in science. Disclaimer: I also received a one-time payment from Bruno for my help with the text and editing of his book, titled: An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in life sciences?”

The book and its order options are introduced on Bruno Lemaitre’s website.

Lemaitre’s discovery of the Toll-receptor won the 2011 Nobel Prize, which however was awarded not to him, but to his former boss, Jules Hoffman (who apparently used to be rather disinterested in Lemaitre work in his lab, until he understood the impact of Lemaitre’s findings). This conflict was reported in media (e., in Science), also Lemaitre himself addressed it on his personal blog “Behind Discoveries”.

This experience, and his later observations, likely prompted Lemaitre to study the prevalence of narcissistic personalities among our science elites. Indeed, anyone who ever worked in academia was likely directly affected by the arrogance, power games and ruthless “networking” there, which push aside actual scientific competence and even research integrity, to allow those with lowest scruples and highest ambitions to climb the academic career ladder. According to Lemaitre, narcissism can be briefly described as the propensity to “get ahead” rather than to “get along”. Narcissists are only concerned about their own self-advancement and self-promotion and have little regard for the rules of social interaction. At the same time, their inflated confidence allows narcissistic researchers to radiate professional competence, knowledge and leadership, while their “meticulous” colleagues struggle with the imposter syndrome.  Finally, while narcissists strive for personal power and dominance, they are actually very good in manipulative networking and even sycophantic Macchiavelism towards senior influential figures, all with the goal to advance their careers. Narcissism is a character trait, and is probably only in small part bestowed secondarily by the acquired institutional position: the abusive narcissistic professors of today used to be career-minded narcissistic students in their past.

Narcissism is often more prominently expressed in males; this could partially explain why the academic hierarchy is largely men-dominated and unfavourable towards women. Lemaitre therefore decided to refer to the narcissistic scientist as a “he”. However, in our progressively ego-oriented society women are catching up with men in this regard (an opposite development would certainly be preferable here!). In fact, Lemaitre also discusses in his book the evolutionary biology and the rise of narcissism in our modern societies, predominantly in the US.

A recent study of faculty narcissism by Westermann et al demonstrated that in the business higher education, narcissistic professors promote narcissistic students, while the less narcissistic students suffer. This academic “natural selection” for narcissism implies a threat that our faculties will soon be overrun by narcissists (i.e, even more than they are now), whose interests lie in self-promotion rather than in doing actual honest research. This observation from economics surely just as well applies to any other branch of academia. Lemaitre naturally focuses on his own domain, the life sciences and biomedicine. Being an active scientist, he has to shy away from naming any examples of narcissistic scientists of today (but he names some of the past), yet in this regards all of us can surely draw from the wealth of our own experience.

In the luckiest case, the academically successful narcissist will also be scientifically competent. The negative consequences would still be unavoidable:  even the most competent narcissistic scientist would strive to usurp the lion’s share of research funding and to dominate his research field like a feudal lord.  In the worst cases, narcissist scientists base their career on data manipulation and fraudulent research.

One such most prominent example is the French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, those who personally know him will surely agree that describing Voinnet as someone carrying narcissistic traits may be an understatement. Voinnet’s entire stellar career on RNA interference was based on manipulated data, starting from his PhD work in an elite UK lab through his jobs as very young research group leader in France till the professorship at the ETH Zürich, which he still holds, despite seven high-profile retractions and many embarrassing literature corrections. Even Voinnet’s PhD thesis contains manipulated data. Apparently to avoid being forced to revoke his doctorate, the British university decided not to investigate these manipulations after all.

Another prominent researcher, whose dangerous narcissism is by now evident beyond any doubt, is the surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who applied faulty and misconduct-tainted basic stem cell science into clinical regenerative medicine, with lethal consequences. Macchiarini’s manipulative arrogance and his narcissistic talent to fascinate and literally seduce everyone around him, including leading academics, doctors, politicians and journalists, resulted in the unnecessarily deaths and suffering of many patients, whom he abused over years for his untested and ethically unapproved experiments in trachea transplants. Unlike Voinnet, Macchiarini lost all his prestigious positions, since the institutional tolerance for human deaths is much lower than “just” for research misconduct.

long talk

Now, enough with introductions. This is what Bruno Lemaitre himself says about his book. And again, if you wish to buy it, please visit his website.

What you will find in this book?

By Bruno Lemaitre.

This book deals with social dominance in the academia and therefore is about tacit interactions between scientists. The scientist who with an apparent objectivity idealizes the science of a colleague who just provided him with  some direct benefit, or academics whose successive mating partners allow climbing up the hierarchy or displaying their alpha-male power.

The book starts with a short introduction on narcissism, as it is currently described by social-personality experts recapitulating its main facets: obsession for status, need for admiration, self-serving bias, inflated-self….

We then ‘practice’ the personality by analyzing three great scientists high in narcissism, the seducer Niels Jerne who never had to do any experiment- so clever he was to challenge the dogma of his field; Jacques Monod and his hard-core message on objectivity, whose arrogance and self-confidence physically transpired in his person; and Walter Gehring, well versed in “self-appropriating” the research done by his junior collaborators. After these three real cases, we will move to three prototypes. The grand mandarin, so prevalent in the continental Europe, with his innate capacity to prevent the emergence of potential competitors. Sometimes, you have to wait till the grand mandarin dies to stake your claim! The book then describes the figure of the Harvard operator, with his appearance of fairness, but who keeps abusing his position of power due to his low understanding of conflict of interest. All the ambitious scientists run to this type of lab!  Even more fascinating is the third one, the visionary scientist, the one who approaches the scientific enterprise as if it were an innovative start-up company: using his ideas to attract investment money. Always popular in the media, less among the real experts, while burning so much of institutional money!

When familiarized with the personality, we will investigate the positive and the negative sides of narcissism in science, because not all is bad in narcissism as exemplified by the role of passion and self-absorption in science. The book will analyze how narcissism influences recognition, with the idea that recognition by peers does not only dependent on scientific skills but also on the capacity to fascinate the others and by being visible, two features associated by narcissism. Networking and misconduct which are often associated with high narcissism will also be discussed.

The book also discusses the dilemma of the meticulous scientist, an imaginary good scientist but low in narcissism. He will realize that this is his personality, notably his high sense of the community, which prevents him to rise to higher levels.

The book next investigates the root of the narcissistic personality, associated with over- or under evaluation by parents. Fascinating hypotheses from evolutionary psychology which root this personality in dominance and short-term mating strategies will be described. Dominance would explain the narcissists’ status striving, their obsession to belong to an elite league, while short term mating strategy explains their strong capacity for seduction, their perpetual dissatisfaction, and the deep feeling of disagreeableness they diffuse in the long term to those who become aware of their self-centeredness. This information will allow us to understand how certain postures and attitudes, like a strategic way of socializing, allow narcissist scientists to be constantly under the spotlight while subtly depreciating the others.

With all this knowledge, the book will discuss recent observations made by psychologists that we as the society, at least in the West, are becoming more and more narcissistic, as reflected by more opportunism in love and at work, more difficulties to establish enduring relationships or the current fascination for popular narcissists (celebrities, politicians…) This raise of narcissism could explain many issues observed in science, such as a decrease of trust and a lower sense of community. Some suggestions to combat this insidious enemy are provided. This book ends up by discussing the influence of cognitive bias on the objectivity of science.

While the book focuses on life sciences and the influence of narcissism on the community of scientists, the analysis applies to many other fields. It tries to explain why we humans continue to get fascinated by a Putin, a Trump or a Berlusconi. Why despite our knowledge that these people will create damage in the long run, it is difficult to combat the appeal and feeling of exaltation the narcissists create, in science, politics and elsewhere.




16 comments on “Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism

  1. hopeinfuture

    Very up-to-date book!
    I hope it helps change everything,


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  3. My opinion is that it is very often not Narcissism but simply sport and business. Sport for many is only about to be first and about medals (awards). Business is about making money and getting profits. Science gets more and more sides which look like sports: to get high score (citation, h-index), to get funding before others, to publish in higher rank journals. Like in sports, some people take doping (manipulate data) to achieve leadership in the race. Science also becomes more similar to business: it is more important to attract funding rather than to make discoveries for permanent jobs and professor titles. List can be continued and extended to new book.


  4. hopeinfuture

    Both things are right: there is a lot of Narcissism, also a lot of “sports and business” and also a mixture of both. Scientists also love the Glory of getting funding from prestigious funding agencies and from publishing in considered reference journals. It does not matter at all if is everything true or not, the Glory is the important thing.


  5. herr doktor bimler

    Jeff Simpson looked at narcissism in the executive world, and there did seem to be some reality-checking there. Narcissists found it easy to be hired as high-flying executives-in-the-making, but their toxic effects on colleagues and their uninterest in performance eventually limited their progress, however much damage they caused along the way.

    So it may be that actual performance matters less in science / academic circles.
    (COI notice: I was one of Jeff’s supervisors).


  6. Plantarum

    Lemaitre would benefit much more if he made his book open access as an eBook. He would get alot more readership, but less profits. Come on, Lemmaitre, open it up to the public!!!


    • Yes, that is true!!!! He would get more impact in the public in general and would increase the chances everything changes in the scientific field!


    • Hard copy books are still mostly used as a lot of people have difficulties to read on a screen. Thay are also taken more seriously. Now even if you make it available for free you wuld still have to cover printing costs for the hard copy version.


    • I think that would be a great idea – having it both free on the web and as a print (paid for) version. Danny Dorling has done this recently for his book “A Better Politics” [ ] and the late David MacKay did this for his book “Sustainable Energy: without the hot air” [ ] . Some people will buy the hard copy (I bought MacKay’s book).


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  8. You will forgive the off-the-cuff comments of an accidental visitor…
    The topic is timely and disturbing, and the exposition is thoughtful. I found, however, the phrasing and sometimes the plain English to be faulty: for example, the sentence “Sometimes, you have to wait for the grand mandarin dies to stake your claim!” is not grammatically correct. If you were not a native English speaker, I would find this easy to overlook. It does make the work somewhat more difficult to read, and suggests some careful editing is in order.


    • thanks for your correction, I now fixed my editing oversight. Bruno Lemaitre is French, I am also not a native English speaker, which of course does not excuse my overlooking of this error when proofreading the text.


  9. Pingback: Bruno Lemaitre on Science and Narcissism – Ukko Elhob's World

  10. Robert Garry

    There is a current discussion of this important topic on Retraction Watch.


  11. I have been working in many Labs in the past ten years (including the one of that “Nobel priced” guy) and I have also been struck by many things: narcissism, bully management style, caste system, etc., and the fact that many researchers/students are socially unadapted, with for many, obvious psychological problems… Haven’t they been able to find Research, what would they be now: politicians?Serial killers? I still wait for an Anthropological-sociological-psychiatric study of Research labs…


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